Thursday, April 13, 2006

Feeding the World or Corporate Bank Balances?

The drive by the North to control the growth and distribution of the world’s food is worrying to say the least. The sovereignty of small farmers and their agricultural systems especially in the South are under constant threat; indeed, far too many have already succumbed.

In his 1974 collection of essays, Small is Beautiful, EF Schumacher intimated that agriculture as an industrial process is flawed and at odds with nature The two are essentially different in that “agriculture deals with living substances … its products the result of processes of life, while industry deals with the elimination of living substances”. Schumacher saw industry as an assault on the unpredictability, unpunctuality, and general waywardness of living nature, including human beings.This modern drive for a global industrial agriculture has enormous social and ecological implications. Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst who is anti-GE quite rightly says, “the end result can only be two kinds of agricultural systems: the North growing staple foods and shipping them throughout the world, while the South is left to produce only [cash crops]”. This is anathema to all who believe that power and self-determination is essential for all peoples, cultures and nations if we are to eliminate poverty and hunger, and have peace and permanence in our world.

The biotech and grain companies continue their onslaught on agriculture; they continually attempt, with the approval of the US government and the European Union, to patent seeds and cereals that they have no rights to. Their success will ensure that most farmers in the South can no longer save seeds from one crop to another, but have to pay northern owned transnational companies for the means to plant future crops.

While global food production per capita has increased since the 1970s so too has world hunger. In South America the number of people going hungry rose by 19% while at the same time per capita food production rose by 8%; in Asia hunger and food per capita both rose by 9%. Sharma, also says: “If the food currently available were to be evenly and equitably distributed among the 6.4 billion people on the planet, there would still be a surplus left for 800 million.” He points out that “hopeless cases” such as Ethiopia have demonstrated how a combination of people-centred and natural resource based policies can recreate self-sufficiency in food. For biotechnology companies to insist that only they can provide the hungry and malnourished with their “novel and … functional foods,” is to, “mock the inability of the poor to access two square meals a day.” He goes on, “In India, the 12 million malnourished people ... are the people who produce enough food, but cannot buy the food they grow”.

This being so, and if control of the staples are more and more in the hands of northern business people, whose experience in life is no more than an abstract notion of a mathematical concept which we all know as “money”, then control is increasingly being taken away from those who understand the land and what best to grow on it for the greater good of themselves, their families and their neighbours, and can only exacerbate the problems.

There is an inherent conflict of interest here. The farmer understands that a bag of grain will diminish in value the longer he/she holds on to it (natural deterioration or being eaten by other things), it is nature’s way, so it makes sense to realise its worth in the short term. Diminishing value is abhorrent to economists – money, the lifeblood of the financial world can, in theory, grow in value ad infinitum. It is, however, related to nothing in the natural world, and is in fact at odds with it as its value to the system is always greater than the product it is used to buy.

The growth capital economy is a violation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and this corrupted value system of the industrialised North has become pervasive in almost all societies through globalisation and the idea of “the free market” that we are told is good for us all.

Noam Chomsky, one of America’s most popular speakers on US foreign policy says of the “free” market: “Nobody in the corporate world or the government takes the doctrines [of free trade] seriously. The parts of the US economy that are able to compete internationally are primarily the state subsidized ones”. Cheap subsidised food exported to the South destroys any idea of competition and bankrupts local farmers. Subsidies need a whole chapter of their own. Vandana Shiva says in GATT, Agriculture and Third World Women, an essay in the 1993 book Eco-Feminism: “Free trade will lead to a 26.2% reduction in human consumption of agricultural produce”. At a time when we are producing more food than ever before, when the world population is increasing, there is a corresponding relative reduction in consumption of food. If Shiva is correct, and there is no reason to doubt her, it can only mean that Sharma is correct also, and equity and distribution are the main problems. When Shiva goes on to say: “the growth of free trade implies the growth of hunger”, it is difficult to disagree.

Also, we in the North have reduced our edible crop diversity to a minimum, with a reduced number of species per crop. This is the agri-culture we have created and it is easy to see why some find it difficult to understand that other cultures find economic benefits in a wider range of crops and species within them, many of which we would call weeds. Shiva points out that what are weeds to companies like Monsanto are food, fodder and medicines for 3rd world women; that in West Bengal 124 “weed” species … have economic importance for farmers … in Mexico, peasants utilise 435 wild plants and animal species of which they eat 229”.

Cover and mixed crop planting, widely used policies in the South, help enrich and preserve soils, but the increased use of Roundup Ready crops eliminates this type of planting and is a recipe for soil erosion. Glyphosate (Roundup) can act similarly to antibiotics and is known to disrupted the symbiotic mycorrhizal process, while antagonists in the soil that normally control soil-based pathogens are destroyed. In effect, these chemicals devastate the natural ecology of the soil.
There is a further problem with this industrialised view of agriculture that is being paid scant attention. Most food grown under northern control would have a huge increase in food miles, at a time when the atmosphere of the planet needs us to reduce such things. Local produce will become a luxury for the very few. One wonders how we can convince our politicians of such things when the leader of the main opposition party in the UK in an attempt to sound environmentally aware says: ‘what we need is another Green Revolution’, his ignorance is frightening.

The green revolution did nothing to alleviate hunger at its source. Too many people could not afford to buy food in the 60s and even more cannot afford to buy food today. The narrow distribution of equity then, is an even narrower distribution of equity now. We can learn to grow as much food as we like – if the starving cannot afford to buy it then they will continue to starve. In the mean time the number of dispossessed and disenfranchised joining the ranks of the chronically hungry is increasing through the "structural adjustment" and "resource retirement" policies of the IMF and the World Bank. Not only are local people removed from their lands, they are removed from any part of the decision making process in their own countries. These policies ensure a flow of resources in favour of the North. People in the South must be free to grow their own food crops in their own way if hunger is truly to be defeated.

Imposing a Northern view of food production on the South is cultural imperialism of the worst kind, it serves only the interests of around 20% of the world’s population while having severe adverse affects on so many of the other 80%. It can only create more suffering and resentment and is not conducive to global sustainability. Even though, at the moment, we are able to grow more food than we actually need, around 2 billion people [30%] of the world’s population are nutritionally stressed with 850 million suffering hunger “every single day”. 30,000 people a day die of hunger, 75% of them under the age of 5 years – that is almost 1,000 every hour. This is unacceptable in a world of plenty!

It is obvious that something is very wrong. Could it be that corporate boardrooms are not the place to decide what should be grown, where it should be grown and by whom; that local community stakeholders, and not remote and invisible private shareholders, should take priority, and that social and environmental justice are more important than corporate bank balances?

The key to it all is the growth capital economy and the delusion that it can be sustainable – that it can continue to grow in a finite world. There are alternatives, but it would probably mean a shift in political power and the notion of wealth to adopt any of these. It takes only the merest of glances into any Sustainable Development project to see the flaw: There may be three pillars of sustainability but the one that take precedent every time is Economy. There is no convincing the operators of anything other than Economy must be served first, Society second and Environmental considerations last. Sustainability in the North is, in effect, based on Affordability. However, without a suitable, life nurturing Environment, could human Society as we know it exist in any degree of comfort? The answer is No. So, if there was no Society what would be the point of an Economy?

Maybe it is time to get our priorities right.
till next time